Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

AGO 1957 No. 98 -
Attorney General John J. O'Connell


A municipal ordinance amending a prior ordinance may not be construed and applied retroactively unless a contrary intention is manifested by the most clear and unequivocal expression.

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                                                                    July 16, 1957

Honorable William C. Klein
State Representative
Seventeenth District
1212 West 43rd
Vancouver, Washington                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 57-58 No. 98

Dear Mr. Klein:

            In your recent letter you asked whether an amending ordinance to the city of Vancouver's business and occupations tax on automobile dealers should be construed to apply retroactively, thus having the effect of relieving certain taxpayers of the full measure of their tax liability under the ordinance originally imposing the tax.

            We answer your question in the negative.


            The facts giving rise to your inquiry as set forth in your request are as follows:

            In November of 1955 the city of Vancouver revised its business and occupations tax ordinance to include, among other matters, a tax on automobile dealers.  The ordinance measured the tax by applying the fixed rate to the dealers' gross revenue.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            Approximately a year later the city amended the above ordinance to provide expressly that automobile dealers may deduct from their gross revenues the value of any vehicle which the dealer took in as a trade‑in.

            It now appears that some of the dealers take the position that the provision of the second ordinance expressly allowing the trade‑in deduction was actually intended to have been included within the original amendment, and that accordingly the city should construe the second amendment to apply retroactively to the date of the enactment imposing the tax.  In your letter you point out that the original amendatory ordinance of November, 1955, imposing the tax on automobile dealers was silent as to any deduction reflecting the value of a trade‑in.

            Our court has held that the same rules of statutory construction apply to the interpretation of municipal ordinances as to the interpretation of state statutes.  Sandona v. Cle Elum, 37 Wn. (2d) 831.  One of the primary rules of statutory construction is that a statute or ordinance speaks only from the time it goes into effect, unless the statute or ordinance clearly and unequivocally evidences a legislative intent that it be given a retroactive effect.  State ex rel. Thorp v. Devin, 26 Wn. (2d) 333; Bodine v. Department of Labor and Industries, 29 Wn. (2d) 879.  Therefore, in the absence of any clear and express language in the second amending ordinance providing for its retroactive application, it is the opinion of this office that a deduction for trade‑ins may not be applied retroactively to reduce any taxpayer's liability.

            We trust the above will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General